Research shows that leadership is the second most important influence on student learning in schools. Further, as Steve Tozer points out, leadership is critical to improving the most important factor—teaching. It is hard to imagine improving teaching and learning throughout an entire school or early childhood center without good leadership.
Tozer has an important message for the Birth–3rd Community. He directs the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he runs an award-winning principal preparation program. Tozer has recently made compelling presentations at two early learning and care events, most recently at a meeting of state early childhood specialists in New Orleans and before that in Chicago at the Ounce of Prevention’s District Leadership Summit. Tozer suggests that Birth–3rd1 initiatives and leadership development form an important “nexus” between two worlds that until recently have operated separately, but that could and should be joined together in mutually-reinforcing ways to achieve greater impact.
“The System is Designed to Obtain the Results It is Obtaining”
Tozer uses this popular saying to make the point that if we want significantly better results in Birth—3rd education and care, we need to make big improvements to the systems that produce these results.
Tozer’s understanding of leadership is thus less about a “leader as hero” model than about improving the way organizations and systems work through the basics—“good shooting, dribbling and passing.” A central priority for leaders of centers and elementary schools should be developing their organizations as “good places for adult learning,” in effect building the capacity for continuous improvement so that centers, schools, and the systems that connect them and other partner organizations “get better at getting better.”
Theory of Impact
Five essential supports provide direction to the challenging work of getting better at getting better. These supports are described in what in Tozer’s view is the most important education book published in the past 25 years, Organizing for School Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (Bryk et. al., 2010). See this article for a summary. The five supports, listed below, emerged from a multi-year study of elementary schools as the distinguishing factors that accounted for the success of high-achieving schools.
- Coherent instructional guidance system (e.g, clear curricular expectations, common assessments, and related coaching and professional development)
- Professional capacity
- Strong parent-community-school ties
- Student-centered learning climate
- Leadership drives change
In Tozer’s view, leadership teams build capacity in elementary schools and preschool centers through these five essential supports and P-3 (Birth—3rd) alignment. Since most principals are not trained in early childhood education, the foundational new PreK—3rd Leadership competencies issued by the National Association for Elementary School Principals serve as a pivotal step in bringing Birth—3rd and leadership efforts together. One of the school success stories profiled in the NAESP report is of Carson Elementary School, a school led for 16 years by Kathleen Mayer, now a coach in UIC’s leadership program. Mayer led her staff in designing the prekindergarten program and in integrating Reggio Emilia practices. According to Mayer, she could not have achieved the success she did in her school without incorporating prekindergarten.
The five supports and P-3 alignment lead to good teaching and care in classrooms, which in turn leads to student engagement and learning, as shown in the following theory of impact:
This theory of impact is embedded in the UIC principal preparation program that Tozer directs, the result of a 10-year partnership between the Chicago Public Schools and UIC. Over time Tozer and his colleagues have increased the priority placed on early childhood development and best practices in the program. Additional essential (and uncommon) features of the program include:
- High selectivity
- Clinical intensity
- K-12 results orientation
- Residency and post-residency coaching
- Assessment rigor—> counseling out
UIC has tracked student gains in schools led by UIC-prepared principals and compared them to Chicago’s average. UIC-led principals have significantly outperformed Chicago averages on a number of measures, including one-year gains in student achievement, performance at mostly low-income/mostly African-American schools, and performance in high-performing schools as well.
Leading Organizational Change Efforts
Tozer’s views on the organizational nature of improving Birth—3rd improvement naturally leads him to the research on organizational change. Specifically, Tozer points to an important list compiled by change expert John Kotter of errors that leaders often make in change efforts, a list that in effect serves as a thought-provoking set of suggestions to keep in mind for Birth—3rd change efforts.
- Allowing too much complacency
- Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
- Understanding the power of vision
- Under-communicating the vision by a factor of 10, 100
- Permitting obstacles to block the new vision
- Failing to create short-term wins
- Declaring victory too soon
- Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in organizational culture
According to Tozer, “social justice resides primarily in institutions.” He appeals to the Birth–3rd community to become agents of institutional change in programs, centers, schools, and communities. Tozer shows that it is possible to dramatically improve how we select and develop good leaders while highlighting adult learning, the five essential supports, and “getting better at getting better” as key priorities for Birth–3rd efforts.
1. Tozer uses the term “P-3” but makes it clear that he is referring to the prenatal through 3rd grade continuum.